Ever since the start of the year, several countries in East Africa have been plagued by an invasion of locusts that are destroying crops en masse in the region. This is said to be the biggest outbreak of locusts in East Africa in decades, with experts warning that things could turn out much worse as time passes.
The locust problem
“The swarms of billions of locusts have been destroying crops in Kenya, which hasn’t seen such an outbreak in 70 years, as well as Somalia and Ethiopia, which haven’t seen this in a quarter-century. The insects have exploited favorable wet conditions after unusually heavy rains,” according to AP News. An average swarm consists of up to 40 million insects. These locusts can travel about 90 miles per day.
According to a UN official, a medium-sized locust swarm can end up eating the same amount of food per day as the entire population of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York combined. If immediate action is not taken to check the locust swarm, their numbers could even swell 500 times when the weather turns dry. At that point, it would be almost impossible to stop these locusts from ravaging every bit of agricultural land in East Africa.
Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, warns that 13 million people are already suffering from severe food insecurity in the region, with 10 million of them actually living in places affected by locusts. Dominique Burgeon, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) emergency and resilience director, has warned that an additional 20 million people in the region could end up having to live with food insecurity. Such a situation might trigger violence and chaos, disrupting peace in East Africa.
The UN is seeking US$76 million as immediate aid. The organization only has US$20 million in hand. “Authorities in the region have already jump-started control activities, but in view of the scale and urgency of the threat, additional financial backing from the international donor community is needed so they can access the tools and resources required to get the job done… communities in Eastern Africa have already been impacted by extended droughts, which have eroded their capacities to grow food and make a living,” Qu Dongyu, Director of FAO, said in a statement (UN News).
The UN is planning to test drones to battle the locusts in East Africa. The drones are equipped with mapping sensors and atomizers that will track the locusts and spray pesticides on them. Some countries are already carrying out aerial pesticide spraying operations. However, the scale of the problem is simply too large. UN drones are prototypes specifically designed to monitor the locusts and adapt to their changing speeds and height.
“Every county wants an aircraft, but we only have five at the moment and they can only be in one location at one time… We have not used drones before, but I think it’s worth testing them as they could help,” David Mwangi, head of plant protection at Kenya’s ministry of agriculture, said to Reuters.
A big drawback to using drones is that they can only carry a small volume of pesticides. Many East African countries also do not have proper laws in place when it comes to drone usage. This makes things complicated when a large drone swarm may have to be deployed immediately.